In the first of two articles on player recruiting and squad building, AndyC takes a look at the subject from firsthand experience in professional sport.
Part One – Recruiting, the need for character.
As the mid-season transfer window closes and with Morgan Schneiderlin and Ademola Lookman already signed, and at least two players loaned out, Evertonians are/were still hoping, some indeed clamouring, for further reinforcements to the squad before the January window closes.
But it’s not as simple as some imagine, simply flashing a big cheque book around is no guarantee of success in the market.
Allow me to offer something of a (sideways) insight… as well as being a proud and rabid Blue, I spent over twenty years in professional ice hockey initially as a fan, then freelance journalist and broadcaster before moving into club management and being involved in player recruiting. During that time I was fortunate enough to travel to many countries and meet many people in the very highest echelons of the game – the National Hockey League and elsewhere.
One thing everyone – coaches, General Managers and indeed players – spoke about was the need for character in the locker room. It was a paramount consideration when recruiting players and making trades (transfers) happen, equally as high as actual playing talent.
One coach I worked very closely with (who went on to coach in the NHL and be part of a Stanley Cup winning team) often used the phrase, “I’ll take a little less to get a lot more”. This is self-explanatory in that he was willing to sacrifice pure skill and talent in one guy to acquire a greater work AND team ethic from an alleged lesser player. (Footnote)
Returning momentarily to our current situation and I am sure in my mind that whilst Everton could wave a big cheque book around, it probably won’t happen unless Ronald Koeman and Steve Walsh are absolutely convinced the target player is of the right character – it’s just too damned important just to leave to money winning a deal.
I’d like to offer you a prime example of character being a deciding factor.
I personally was involved with a team looking for an out and out goal scorer. We had a list of potential candidates and it was my task to take the ‘night shift’ – staying up and playing the phone to North America getting references etc.
In the early hours talking to a former NHL player in Saskatchewan, we bounced around a few names I’d collated until he asked me point blank what we were looking for. I told him we had two great wingers and now wanted someone who was happy to park himself in front of the net, take the whacks and hacks of defencemen sticks, but put the puck in the net, and regularly.
He gave me a name of a guy playing in the US minor leagues and told me ‘do your homework’ and if we could afford him, not to take no for an answer. I did the homework and the guy did indeed have impressive stats, apart from an almost one year period when he didn’t have a team.
I called another player I knew and trusted and importantly who’d played with the guy and asked for his opinion and explain the gap in his stats. Ten minutes later and I’d learned the guy had taken a stick in the face, lost an eye and had to take a year off. At the time of his horrific injury, he’d been on the cusp of signing with a club in the NHL, but that dream had now gone, and for many players, the loss of an eye would have been career-ending.
Disappointed to hear this, I was boosted to then hear, “Andy, don’t let that put you off. He’s an ugly skater, but if you want goals, he’s your guy. He’s got the balls of a lion, he’s an absolute natural goalscorer, and most importantly, a real team guy, no airs and graces at all”.
I then spent another couple of days, nights actually, talking to other coaches and players who knew the guy, including the GM of the San Jose Sharks who had drafted the player as a junior and without exception; they all sang his praises, not just as a player, but as a person. We signed him and he tore the league apart that season, scoring 44 goals and 35 assists for 79 points in 54 games, but the team finished third through no fault of his.
Subsequently, we weren’t able to re-sign him and he moved to a bigger budget rival team where he again ‘lit the lamp’ with unerring regularity leading them to back-to-back league titles.
The point of this story is to emphasise that star quality doesn’t just come from an ability to play, it comes from an ability to effectively use whatever talents and tools you have at your disposal, and adapt to and thrive in any given situation.
I am certain in my own mind that both Koeman and Walsh are doing their homework and if needs be and the right player to fit the role they want to fill isn’t available, they’ll keep their powder dry and continue the research going to the next transfer window.
Panic buying I suspect is not on their agenda, securing character and talent most certainly will be.
Footnote – Watch the movie Miracle – the story of the USA Olympic squad that defeated the USSR Red Army juggernaut to win gold, largely college kids against highly skilled, but poorly motivated superstars.
In Part Two, Andy will give an insight into how a hockey squad is built and the similarities to how he thinks football works.